From the crumbling riverside capital Kinshasa to the blood stained hills of the east, Congo marks a milestone in its war-scarred history with a referendum on Sunday — its first democratic national vote for 40 years.
The plebiscite offers voters a chance to endorse a new constitution ushering in elections to draw a line under years of war, but few members of the electorate have read the text and opponents of a transition government have urged a “no” vote.
The constitution is seen as crucial to a peace process ending a five-year war that killed an estimated 4 million people, mainly through hunger and disease. Many analysts say a population weary of decades of dictatorship, war and chaos is keen to see elections next year and will likely vote in favor.
“I want to vote, but how can I when I have never seen this document?” asked student Michel Etshitshi, wandering down a rubbish-strewn street in Kinshasa.
“But as we are tired of wars and transitions, I think I will just vote 'yes' so we can move to elections and get rid of this nonsense,” he said, referring to the transitional team including the former government, rebels and the political opposition that has led Africa’s third-largest country since a 2003 peace deal.
Opposition veteran Etienne Tshisekedi called on Wednesday for people to boycott the “exclusive, polluted, unjust and blatantly counterproductive electoral and political process."
A growing “no” campaign led by critics of 34-year-old President Joseph Kabila’s government poses a greater threat to a fragile peace process borne of years of negotiations and meant to end one of Africa’s most complex wars, which began in 1998.
Specter of 'no' vote
Congo’s elections were originally due to take place by the end of June 2005. But continuing ethnic militia killings in the east, divisions within the government — and, critics say, reluctance by those in power to relinquish their posts and benefits — saw long delays and polls were pushed back a year.
Some 24 million people are registered for Sunday’s poll.
If they vote yes, there should be presidential, parliamentary and local elections by the end of June 2006.
A “no” vote — akin to that which sparked a political crisis in nearby Kenya last month — would require the redrafting of the constitution, another referendum and, many say, the reopening of negotiations amongst Congo’s political players.
Kabila has said that would be “catastrophic."
An influential Catholic group has urged Catholics, who account for around half the 60 million population, to vote “no."
The United Nations, which spends over $2 billion a year in Congo on aid and its biggest peacekeeping force, is watching the process closely across the vast country, which still lacks the most basic infrastructure.
“Those who vote 'Yes' will do so to keep the process moving on. If there is a 'No,' it will be a 'No' against the government rather than the constitution itself,” said a U.N. political analyst, adding turnout would likely be low outside cities.
Critics note the government’s failure to pay civil servants and soldiers on time, continuing insecurity in the east, allegations of corruption and delays in the electoral process.
“We don’t need these people (in government) so we will vote 'No' to get rid of them,” said Diki, selling pens, biscuits and shoe polish at Kinshasa’s chaotic pot-holed Victoire roundabout.
“The president may say we have to vote “Yes”. But we have our own opinions and we will finally be heard,” he said.